The Scandal of the Charismatic Mind (Part II)

The Reasons

In the first part I had a look at the attitudes behind Charismatic anti-intellectualism. In this part I want to look at some of the reasoning that fostered the kind of sentiments I mentioned in the former. There is a line from my previous post where I quoted one local prophet which I think best represents such views and the issues with them. He said,

They should take their books; we shall practice our faith. They should rely on scholars; we shall rely on the Holy Spirit.

I previously hinted at why this is problematic but here I will elaborate on it. Hidden at the centre of that statement is how a person views Holy Scripture. He is not rejecting all books but those from “human wisdom” and leaving the Bible which is divinely inspired. Anything from an academic he will not so much as take a look at. What is the reason behind this?

It is a basic tenet of Christianity not to rely on human ability or intelligence but to fully trust in God. The Bible is God’s revealed word. Since it is divinely inspired we should trust in it. Furthermore a lot of academic work is prosaic and irrelevant to daily life. Some of it has an anti-orthodox agenda, something that Bible specifically warns against. In summary there are positive reasons for a Christian to be circumspect with ‘uninspired material’ which comes from flawed people. However, does this stance mean complete abstinence from all scholarly material, is that what the Bible really means by completely trusting in God’s word? In most cases such attitudes proceed from sincere sentiment however having good intentions is not enough of a justification.

At the centre of the brand of anti-intellectualism I am addressing is scripture and how charismatics relate to it. As I have remarked elsewhere, in spite of the many expressions and differences, the Bible has been germane if not fundamental to historic Christian faith. From the onset what we know today as the Bible was absolutely essential to the early Jesus movement which eventually became known as Christianity. Contrary to popular perceptions about what religion is supposed to look like, this was very odd in the ancient world where Christianity arose. The vast majority of ‘religions’ throughout human history do not have sacred scriptures, let alone anything like the Bible. For instance the central claim of Christianity is not only that God rose Jesus from the dead but it all happened according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4.) Christian faith cannot exist apart from the Bible. There are many facets to the current topic but by focusing on the relationship between scripture and the intellect we can cut right to the heart of the matter.

The majority of charismatics do not live in the Majority World so the tension between human intellect and divine inspiration has a different tone. In the America ‘culture wars’ for instance, it seems scholarship is seen as a threat to the authenticity of the Bible. As I have already mentioned some scholars do use their training to attack the faith. In a place like Ghana scholarship in the charismatic setting is seen more as a threat to the legitimacy of preachers. Most if not all charismatic preachers believe they have been called by God to do Christian ministry and so God himself is able to equip them. They see this pattern of divine calling and assistance in scripture itself. This in turn legitimises them as authentic communicators and teachers of God’s word. They have been divinely commissioned and prepared to preach. On the other hand biblical and theological education also gives people credentials to handle scripture but anyone can get academic qualifications. Scholarship therefore stakes a claim to a space traditionally occupied by Charismatic preachers as authoritative communicators of God’s word. Divine calling and equipping is therefore seemingly challenged by human ability and training. This however does not mean they only read the Bible and listen to no one else. It means they do not view scholarship highly or sometimes outright reject it. However, they will listen to other ministers because in their paradigm only inspired preachers should handle the inspired word. So they will read the work of other charismatic ministers and listen to them.

Again this pattern is something they see in scripture itself, how they think it works. Inspired people wrote scripture so inspired people should preach it. It’s an exclusive club of people specially selected by God who do ministry. If they are divinely chosen they must be divinely equipped. This sort of responsibility means it is not automatically every person who can do ministry, no matter how well academically trained they are. (This interestingly is sometimes a path to a kind of neocatholicism in the Charismatic world, especially in “independent” churches where the founder basically has papal infallibility and his subordinates are the only authorised ministers.)

If it takes inspiration to produce and communicate scripture then it also requires divine illumination to understand scripture. This creates another corollary which is used by them to exclude scholarship: the perspicuity (clarity) of scripture. If it takes divine insight to understand scripture then it follows for them that academic training is not necessary for understanding the text. The “plain reading” and the illumination of the Spirit, which is accessible to every believer, is enough and so we do not need to resort to specialist knowledge to understand scripture. When they look into scripture they find evidence to buttress their view in that God did not use academics to communicate his word. Some goes so far as to think it is sheer hubris to think reason and methodology can make sense of what comes from unfathomable wisdom of the maker of the heavens and the earth.

In summary the first objection to scholarship aims to conserve the place of inspired preachers as the authentic communicators of God’s word. The second objection is to maintain access to scripture for all believers and not a scholarly elite. These objections may seem to be at odds with one another. The first point says some people are called to communicate scripture. The second says every believer can understand scripture yet you need understanding to properly communicate anything. However, underlying both objections is the belief that the Bible is spiritual and scholarship is secular therefore the two do not really mix. The separation between Church and College for them must be maintained. This is for them a necessary distinction because divine wisdom and human wisdom are ultimately seen as at odds with one another. Therefore, a choice must be made.

Looking at the problem this way it seems Charismatic anti-intellectualism is in some way a manifestation of the religious/secular divide, which relatively speaking has only recently occurred in human history. I do not think changes in European culture completely account for this stance especially considering Charismatism is more vibrant in the Majority World. I think a lot of it has to do with how Pentecostalism began in the first place, where private spiritual experiences were again given currency. The prevailing theologies of the time were not equipped to handle this new, or renewed, direction and they often vociferously criticised early Pentecostals. This early resistance from the academy led to a hangover of suspicion towards the seminary in the bourgeoning movement. In some ways it persists to this day among Charismatics. It is only recently that Pentecostal/Charismatic perspectives are being duly recognized in the academy yet there is still a long way to go. We must note that early Pentecostals were not innocent either and acted in ways they should not have towards their non-charismatic siblings. We should resist the urge to romanticise the origins of our tradition into a scene from Acts 5. Even with that, we must remember such anti-intellectual sentiments were in some respects symptomatic of European cultural views of separating the Church and the Academy, which was exported to other parts of the world as Pentecostalism became globalised.

⇐Part I

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